Sitting in Bogota, I didn’t expect to see Colombian television coverage of the four-ship Russian squadron departing Severmorsk. After all, Colombia is very much focused on consolidating its recent gains against the narcoterrorist group FARC. There is now tremendous optimism in Colombia with a series of successes that began with a spring operation that killed the FARC deputy Raul Reyes and a summer operation that recovered three American hostages, Ingrid Betancourt, and eleven others. It was strange to me that the Caucasus should matter in Colombia, but to overuse a phrase, the world is interconnected now.

Of course, the easy answer to why Georgia matters in Latin America can be summed in a single word: Chavez. Venezuela’s president has taken advantage of Russia’s need to reclaim its international status as a world power. Ioan Mircea Pascu sees acts like this as Russia’s attempt to get back in the game

With its invasion of Georgia, Russia demonstrated the determination to “come back into the game” in style. Regenerated through the surge of energy prices, Russia’s leaders want to make up their losses from the 1990s and get payback for the accompanying humiliation. Her aggressive policies, heralded by the political use of the energy weapon starting in 2006, have been beefed up now with a willingness to openly employ military might.

The latest move was the very short deployment of two TU-160 Russian bombers to Venezuela. While not threatening or that impressive (my colleague John Schindler would argue that a regiment would have been more exciting) their presence certainly stirred distant memories of a Cold War past when neighboring countries sought the security assistance from the United States or the Soviet Union. We should fight interpreting these actions in a Cold War context, but there is some resemblance.
Colombia has been a long-time US partner, which was recently reaffirmed with President Uribe’s trip to DC. Uncharacteristic of Latin American leaders, he boldly stated at the White House, “Colombia is a loyal ally to the States.” In a region that is largely skeptical of US intentions, due to a legacy of intervention, Colombia’s friendship is rare in the region and should be treasured. This will likely increase if Chavez continues to undermine regional stability.
For its part, Venezuela has been courting and buying Russia’s friendship to serve as a counter to US influence in the region. He does this by hosting military deployments, buying Russian-made weapons, and signing trade agreements. Chavez plans to be in Moscow later this week to keep the momentum going.
While the naval deployment will include many other countries, Chavez sees it as necessary for him. He said recently on Russian television: “No sólo Venezuela, sino toda América Latina necesita ahora de amigos como Rusia.”  (“Venezuela not only needs Russia, but all Latin America needs friends like Russia.”)  For the last five years, Chavez has been desperately buying influence (and elections) in the region to spread his recycled ideas about socialism. The bomber and upcoming naval deployment are just the latest round in his attempt to fence off Latin America from United States influence. It’s really unfortunate that Russia is playing into his hands by working with the Chavez regime so closely, but it’s easy to fall back on power politics. Komcomolckya Pravada’s headline captured the Russian meaning of this deployment: “Russia’s Fist in America’s Belly.” One of the explanations offered included: 

Russian naval and air forces approaching U.S. territory is an adequate response to U.S. and NATO military bases and objects encroaching our borders. In such a way, Russia is trying to achieve a strategic balance and is letting Washington know that Moscow is able to defend its interests. 

There are better ways to illustrate that Russia is worthy of being a world power.
Given the amount of cocaine that makes it to Europe and Russia these days, the four-ship squadron should shy away from planned photo ops with the Venezuelan Navy. Instead, the squadron should work with the Atlantic navies that patrol the Caribbean conducting counter-drug operations. When Peter the Great arrives on station in November, its commanding officer should call Joint Interagency Task Force South and report for duty. This unrealistic recommendation would go a long way to convince Atlantic leaders that Russia is a responsible actor and it would illustrate that Russia is no Chavez puppet, but a responsible maritime partner.
Derek S. Reveron is a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College. AP Photo by Ivan Sekretarev.